for People with a Passion for Period Property
Ask an Agony Uncle!
Stephen Boniface - Stephen Boniface specialises in building conservation providing multi-disciplinary consulting services. He is Chairman of the Building Surveying Faculty and member of the Residential faculty. He serves on the RICS Building Conservation Forum Board and is the 'Agony Uncle' on the Period Property UK website (www.periodproperty.co.uk).

Ask our Agony Uncles ...

You can write to our panel of experts free of charge on any subject, providing it's got something to do with Period Properties.

Our experts are all specialists in matters directly involved with older properties. So, if you have a problem with an older building - or if you think you might have a problem - ask an Agony Uncle...

 

SUBJECT: Flat leaseholder seeks clarification of freeholder's development rights.
FROM: Helenal O'Neill (London)
There are 5 flats in the Victorian house where I live. The grd floor flat + the basement, owned by the freeholder, has just been sold via an auctioneeer. We understand that the new owner plans to convert the basement into flats or whatever. Planning permission was given we believe.

We (ie. in other 4 flats) hope to have a meeting with them soon to get a clearer picture of their intentions. Some of us are woried about whether the underpinning will be done properly. That said, we know that the new owner will have to satisfy building regulations.

There are potential benefits for me and others eg. I may be able to get planning permission to build an extension to my flat. However, I can't help but wonder if I might be wise to sell now! Difficult question I know but I wonder what other people have experienced and whether they would have, in retrospect, decided to move asap!

Helenal O'Neill

You do realise that you and the other residents may have certain rights under modern Leasehold Enfranchisement legislation? If enough of you wish to do so you could purchase the Freehold. There is even the question of whether the Freeholder followed the correct procedures in selling the Freehold (or was it just a Lease that was sold at Auction?). Nonetheless, if there are enough of you interested you could force the sale of the Freehold to a group of you. In any event, you could get the management changed if you wish. There are many rights that now exist for Leaseholders.

Turning to the underpinning, this is work that falls under the Party Wall Act. The Freeholder/owner of the flat has to serve notices and in this instance I suggest you all dissent (either positively, or by simply not replying in the time period). You can then appoint a Party Wall Surveyor to deal with matters. The PWS could in fact be an Engineer (perhaps appropriate in this instance), who can then properly assess the underpinning and other structural issues. There is much more to be said about PW matters and you will find discussions about this on the Forum section of the web site. You may also get useful information from Pyramus and Thisbe (a group for PW professionals). Do a Google to find their web site.

By the way, if the work commences and no Party Wall Notice has been served you could get an injunction to stop the work.

On the matter of future extensions, it does not follow that you would have an easier time getting permission to extend your property. Each application would be considered on its merits.

As for whether to sell, it is true that the property will be less attractive during the works. However, if the works are properly dealt with, etc there is no reason to suspect a long-term problem and there should be no adverse effect on value once the work has been completed. Whether to sell is a decision that should perhaps be primarily influenced by other factors such as - does it suit your requirements, what is happening to the local property market, etc.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Do new Part L regulations mean I have no choice but to have double-glazed sash windows?
FROM: Amrit Sachar (London)
I need to have some of my sash windows replaced and have been told by a refurbishing company that there are legal requirements which state that a replacement must be double-glazed. Is this true?

Amrit Sachar

Replacement windows have to comply with the requirements of Part L of the Building Regulations. Although listed and other described historic buildings (e.g. those in conservation areas) are not exempt they are given special consideration and it does not follow that all replacement windows HAVE to be double glazed in these buildings. If you intend to replace windows with double glazed units (whether of timber, plastic, etc) you can have a FENSA registered company undertake the work and that will satisfy the requirements. However, if you wish to install single glazed units (e.g. because the house is listed) you would need to apply direct to the Local Council Building Control Dept. to make a formal decision on whether the replacement window can be single glazed. It is likely that the company you spoke to are themselves FENSA registered and will only fit double glazed units and/or they are simply unaware of the actual regulations in connection with historic buildings.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Chilly Gilly seeks advice on cold bedroom.
FROM: Gillian Weatherburn (Gloucestershire)
My cottage has one of the gable ends facing West and the bedroom is very cold as the building is timber frame and not sure what the other stuff is!

I'm considering getting a carpenter to insulate the wall ie batten out the wall and putting up false wall. Can I do this ? It will ofcourse cover the lovely timbers but it really is very cold. I'm having a bigger radiator put in but the wall is still extremly cold to touch.

Dawn Bovey-Pilkington

This is not an uncommon problem, but this type of work would normally require listed building consent if the building is listed.

It is not clear from your comments whether the gable wall has an exposed frame or whether it is clad with something (e.g. render). If it is exposed look to see if there is evidence of it having been clad (look for nail holes, etc and see if you can find old photographs). If so, see if the Conservation Officer will let you apply a suitable cladding. This may help significantly. I would suggest a lime render, as this retains breathability but gives relatively good insulating value. You could have the new cladding designed to incorporate insulation.

If it is already clad, would a further insulated cladding (e.g. sheep wool and another layer of lime render) be possible and perhaps a better solution to the internal works? Generally, insulation works better when applied top the exterior of a building. This is partly because you can ensure full coverage, whereas with internal insulation there is always the risk of various gaps at perimeters, etc.

As an alternative, you could indeed consider an internal insulated lining. Such work is 'reversible' in that someone in future could remove it to expose the older/original structure. Whether you will actually be allowed to undertake such work will depend on a number of factors including how important the wall is that is being covered.

From a technical view you would need to ensure that there is a vapour barrier and that there is ventilation to the cold side. You will find some helpful comments and general advice on the Old House Store and Mike Wye web sites, which will include advice on the use of sheep's wool insulation.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Should I use sprayed foam to repair my slate roof?
FROM: Stephen Hall (London)

I own a small 1890s mid-terrace in a conservation area. The roof is unlined and there is evidence of some water affecting timbers in a few places, as well as a few slipped tiles.

A neighbour has had a Warmroof system installed. However, I am concerned that this may cause condensation problems and be a poor investment (4000 quoted), and possibly not appropriate in a conservation area. Is it better to do simple roof repairs and leave the insulation at floor level?

Stephen Hall

Nearly all roofs constructed prior to the mid 20th century were unlined. Some had close boarding, but many did not. If the covering of tile, slate, etc was maintained in good condition there was rarely a problem. Yes, driven rain, snow, wind, etc can get in, but as it is only a roof space why would this matter? The small amount of moisture that enters this way will normally evaporate away before causing any real harm. Yes you can get slight damp stains, but this could be condensation and not necessarily rain penetration.

Assuming your roof space is insulated there is a need for ventilation to the cold side of the insulation. In an unlined roof there is no need for specific ventilation as it occurs normally through the covering. If the roof is lined specific ventilation is required and even then I have seen many such roofs with condensation problems.

In my opinion a lining is not essential with any roof covering that is laid in a way that involves overlapping the individual tiles, slates, etc. Even if one tile fails there will be one or two below to prevent immediate direct water penetration. My advice is only to line a roof if or when complete re-covering becomes necessary due to major failure of the roof covering.

I would not recommend the use of any spray-on material to the underside of the roof. There are serious technical concerns and the fact is that such material is never used on new-build because it cannot comply with modern regulations - or at least I have never come across a new-build house with such a product used. Any spray-on material is permanent. If further deterioration of the roof covering occurs it becomes very difficult to repair further or even salvage the covering for re-use (often done with old roofs because the usual problem is failure of the fixings rather than the covering material). I have heard of instances of such material causing early failure of the battens fixings, etc. I suggest you look at the Discussion Forum and you will see a significant proportion of people against the use of such material.

My advice would be to spend your money on getting the roof overhauled by a competent roofer able and willing to overhaul rather than simply replace. Of course, if the fixings or covering have reached the end of their useful life you may have to consider complete re-covering in which case you can line and ventilate in the modern way.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Pooling water under floorboards gives leads to musty smell in house.
FROM: Bernard Franklin (London)
Firstly may I thank you for all the advice given on this site, it has allowed me to intelligently investigate my own problem.

We own a 1900 built Victorian ground floor flat in Earlsfield, South London. The problem started from the flat feeling damp and drafty. Turning the heating on fully failed to heat the rooms substantially or rid the damp. On further investigation, I have found pooled water underneath the floorboards. The air bricks are intact and function particularly well, so much so that the gaps in the exposed floorboards carry a noticable draft. The condition of the floor joists and boards are excellent, and the walls below the floor carry no visable signs of rising damp. I believe the water is pooling under the house as the surrounding ground level is approximately 1m above the void under the floor. The air is then being drawn over the water, picking up the moisture and rising through the flat giving it the damp feel. (The chimneys are unblocked)

I am considering pulling up the floorboards, and installing an impermeable membrane over the joists to stop the flow of air through the flat, whilst maintaining the airflow below.

Firstly is this advisable? Secondly are there any knock on effects in the long term?

Bernard Franklin

An unusual problem. It seems that the issue here is not that the water is causing damage, but an unpleasant atmosphere. It sounds as if the sub-floor ventilation is doing its job. However, I assume the flat is heated and I suspect the warm air in the flat is absorbing the water to an extent and create an atmosphere with high relative humidity. I also assume you are out at work most of the day and therefore the air changes during the day are few. The air will become musty during the day. Does the problem lessen when you are in the property a lot with good ventilation? That assumes you open windows, doors etc to give good ventilation. A common problem now is that many home owners keep everything shut to "keep the heat in" and then wonder why they have a stuffy musty atmosphere.

Whilst the presence of water may not be causing a problem to floor timbers, it is clearly undesirable. Your suggested solution should prevent the moisture being absorbed into the internal air. It would not change the need to ensure good ventilation in the flat itself. Beneath the floor you it would be sensible to increase the ventilation to ensure that the risk of rot to the joists is reduced. Longer term it would be advisable to investigate the possibility of removing the moisture, or most of it. Although high maintenance it might be possible to insert a semi-submersible pump with float switch. I have assumed that the water is ground water and cannot be resolved in other ways (e.g. repairing a broken pipe).

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Legal advice sort over uninhabitable third bedroom.
FROM: Seth Barber (Cheshire)
I'm in the process of renovating/restoring an 1880's stone built terrace. The majority of effort so far has gone into rectifying many years of 'DIY bodges'. This and plenty of 'nasty surprises' are be expected, but the previous owners attentions included some fairly worrying modifications to load bearing walls to make 'features'. They had stated (obviously untruthfully) that they had not made modifications. The way they were plastered/panelled over means that I couldn't have reasonably have expected my surveyor to have spotted them.

In addition, the property was described as and sold as (and priced as!) a 3 bedroom house, having a pre-building regs loft conversion. This wasn't questioned by my solicitor or surveyors. If I'd had a tenth of the knowledge of building regs that I have now I'd have seen that it was nowhere close to being correctly described as a habitable room and hence 3rd bedroom (hindight is wonderful...!). The work required to bring it into line has been extensive and it is not yet clear that I will be able to make it comply suficiently with building regs to honestly describe it as a habitable room when I come to sell (or it is valued for mortage purposes).

These can't be too uncommon. Given the effort and expense involved in correcting these things and the potential loss in value if I sell as a 2, not 3 bedroom house, I'm curious to know whether there is any reasonable comeback against either the seller, their agent, or my solicitor, and if so, what steps to take?

Seth Barber

Not a straightforward problem.

What is not entirely clear is whether the loft room is truly uninhabitable/unusable as a room, or whether you reach this view simply because it does not comply with Regulations?

I want to start by examining your role. I assume you inspected the property before purchase and saw this room. You had an opportunity yourself to consider whether the room was useable for your purposes (as a habitable room - a bedroom, study, etc). You could have questioned the description of the building as having three bedrooms if you suspected a problem. If you did not it would suggest that there was no obvious problem with using the loft room. There are some aspects of house purchase where specialist knowledge is unnecessary. Assessing whether the house is generally as described is one of them. If it is described as having three 'bedrooms' and clearly has not you could and should have queried this. If you had any concerns you could and should have asked your solicitor and/or surveyor to look further into this. The starting point must therefore be that you were satisfied to pay the price, having seen the property for yourself, on the understanding that it had a certain amount of accommodation (regardless of how the agent described it).

Your only comeback on the agent would be through the Property Misdescription Act. You would have to show that the property was misdescribed. This may not be as simple as you think, partly because of the argument I have outlined above. A solicitor experienced in this Act should advise you further. I believe that if you were successful the agent would be punished, but I am not sure you would gain any financial compensation. Again a solicitor should advise fully.

With regard to the vendor, it is still the case that 'caveat emptor' (buyer beware) applies. Nonetheless, if you can show that they answered specific questions put to them (the formal solicitors questions, or to any other formal questions put in writing) you may then have a case against them. Once again, a solicitor should advise. I doubt that you would have a case simply because they covered up something. After all, if they undertook the work themselves some years ago they may be ignorant that they had done anything wrong. If they deliberately hid a major defect and you can prove that they lied you may have a case.

Turning to the solicitor, there are certain formal questions that a solicitor has to put and it is the job of the solicitor to check answers and explain to you the implications. It is very rare for a solicitor to visit a property they are involved with and they will not know what alterations, etc would have been undertaken unless someone (you or the surveyor) tell them. They can only advise on what information is provided by way of answers to the formal questions, etc. It is only if they are made aware of alterations, extensions, etc that they will know specifically to ask about these and perhaps investigate in more depth. However, if you can show the solicitors were aware of certain issues that they then failed to check you may have a case.

That brings us to the surveyor. The property dates from the 1880s and no part of it will comply with modern regulations. If there had clearly been 'historic' alterations (pre-dating modern regulations) there is no reason to make specific comment, otherwise where do you stop? For a surveyor to tell you that "there are several phases of development all pre-dating modern regulations and therefore none of them complying with regulations" is a meaningless exercise.

What is perhaps more important is the assessment of the structure and its suitability for the uses identified or proposed. If there were hidden structural defects and the surveyor really could not see them it is unlikely that you would have a case against him/her. However, if there were superficial signs to indicate the possibility of a hidden problem perhaps the surveyor should have said something.

On the matter of the loft conversion, the matter is not whether the conversion complies with modern regulations, of course it won't, but nor does the rest of the property. It is a matter of whether it is useable as a habitable room. On the matter of health and safety there are many historic buildings with rooms accessible from stairs that are steep, turning, etc and do not in any way come close to complying with regulations. I mention this merely as an example. The issue is not strict compliance but usability and general appropriateness for use. When you inspected did you sense a problem, or find a difficulty yourself in terms of getting to the room, walking around it, etc? If so, did you mention it to the surveyor to specifically advise upon?

On the other hand, if there is something wrong that renders use of the room positively dangerous, this should be mentioned by the surveyor whether or not it is immediately apparent to the 'lay' person.

Personally, I would usually mention difficulties and issues that might limit use of the room, but unless there was a structural problem, or something that made it positively dangerous to get to/from, etc I would not make a big issue of the matter. When I have specifically stated that the room should not be regarded as a habitable room it is where there is a pull down ladder and an unstrengthened floor that is positively weak. I think a surveyor should mention such matters. That said, in all instances I can think of the client has already mentioned it to me and is aware of the problem, merely requiring a professional view.

Having said all of this, if the loft room does have a pull down ladder, weak floor, etc, etc, but the surveyor did not say anything detrimental about the loft room you may have a claim, regardless of whether you (in ignorance) thought the space habitable. That said, did the surveyor know it was described as a bedroom?

On the matter of value, there is the possibility that the price you paid was reasonable even for a two bedroom property and that the third 'bedroom' had no impact on value. The agent may have described it as a third bedroom, but valued it on the basis of only having two bedrooms. When I sold a property one year ago it had a loft space that could be used. The property was valued ignoring this space as a habitable room, but in the agent's details they all described it as a further bedroom until I told them not to.

Without actual inspection I can only pass general comment. I hope I have given you sufficient pointers to enable you to consider the various issues. If you still feel aggrieved at the service you received from any of the professional advisors, etc you should seek further advice. With regard to the survey, you should have an independent surveyor make an initial assessment of whether you might have grounds for a complaint.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Crumbling sandstone windowsills lead to concern.
FROM: Sam Turnbull (Suffolk)
I've got a Victorian terraced property with the original sand-stone window sills (un-painted). The down stairs sill at the front seems to be cracking and crumbling on it's under-side.

Where a few pieces have fallen off the remaining sandstone is very powdery and soft and it seems to be getting worse. Any advice as to what I can do? Sticking pieces back on with glue doesn't seem to be an option as it is all so soft. We can't paint them as we are in a Conservation area.

Sam Turnbull

If they are sandstone they will deteriorate with weathering. Painting/sealing them could accelerate deterioration. If water ingress is occurring you clearly need to do something. If the existing sills can be removed and salvaged you could take them out, lay in suitable damp proof membranes, etc and then reinstate the sills. Even if they deteriorate they should not then let in direct water ingress for many years. However, I suspect that they will simply fall apart on taking them out. It is possible that you will have to face replacement. With sandstone sills this is not uncommon. Replacement should ideally be with something that forms a close match, but I would suggest a limestone rather than sandstone. The alternative would be a reconstituted stone replacement - some are quite good in appearance. This would retain the general appearance whilst providing something far more hard-wearing. Any reinstatement should of course include insertion of membranes. Whether this work is actually necessary now or will be necessary in the near/medium future is a matter of judgement and it would be sensible for you to get the opinion of a local stone mason.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: They know it's damp, but did they have a legal obligation to tell us?
FROM: Chris Frazer-Smith (Greater London)
We are in the process of buying a cottage built around 1800. A detailed building, damp and timber survey has revealed rising damp in the living room, rising damp, dry and wet rot in the cellar.

Work to rectify said problems has been estimated at a figure of around 10,000.

We have yet to try and negotiate a reduction in the accepted offer to contribute towards the repairs of these issues but on hearing of our proposal to do so the sellers have immediately told their estate agents to re market the house and withdraw our accepted offer.

We have yet to exchange but could do so in the next few days. The buyers of our house are ready to exchange.

Do the sellars have a legal obligation during the search to admit to what appears to be an obvious damp problem in their property ?

They have been aware of the surveyors' specialisms and have "chatted" to said surveyors about such issues.

Chris Frazer-Smith

The first question must be whether there is such a serious problem with damp, rot, etc? Whilst not doubting that there may well be a problem, if the proposed solution costing 10,000 includes modern treatment, etc it may be that the problem has not been properly diagnosed, etc. Make sure that if you do end up proceeding with this, that you have a further inspection from someone who properly understands this type of property, its construction, etc.

It is still true that it is for the buyer to establish the condition of the property. A Vendor has a series of questions to answer and truthful answers must be given. However, the vendor does not have to disclose each and every defect of the building; it is for you and/or your surveyor to find out. If the problem is as obvious as you say, they do not need to disclose, because it is apparent and for you to have investigated.

I am not sure what you mean by your penultimate paragraph, or that it is relevant anyway. You may wish to check with your solicitor but I do not believe they have a duty to tell you about suspected problems or reveal the information they have got from advisors.

Your last paragraph is not clear as to whether the reduction in price is of the property you are selling, or of the one you hope to buy.

At the end of the day, buying a house is a matter of negotiation. You can have all the information in the world on a specific problem, but if the vendor will not budge on price you have to decide whether to proceed anyway. This applies to both the property you hope to buy and for you with regard to the property you are selling. Both are transactions that have been established by negotiations. Until the contracts are exchanged all parties are still vulnerable to renegotiation for any reason whatsoever (e.g. the vendor has had a bad day and suddenly decided to be awkward!).

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.

 
 
 
 

SUBJECT: Paint removal from fireplace reveals mystery stone.
FROM: Simon Keen (Bedfordshire)
Following advice on your site about stripping paint from what we thought was a marble fireplace we discovered, unlike in the other bedrooms, what appears to be a stone fireplace.

The material looks a litttle like sandstone. By the look of the floor etc it is an orginal fireplace. It has the same design as the marble fireplaces in the other bedrooms. The room it is in was the servant's bedroom.

What is the stone likely to be and how should we finish it?

Simon Keen

This is impossible to answer without seeing the fireplace, knowing more about the building (its age, general construction, etc). It could indeed be a cheaper stone than the other marble fireplaces and this would fit with the room being a servant's room. However, I cannot say what stone it is likely to be. I suggest you get a local stonemason to come round and have a look to advise you. Similarly, the mason should advise on appropriate finishes, depending on the nature of the stone.

Period Property UK would like to thank Stephen Boniface, Tony Redman and other partners at the The Whitworth Co-Partnership with Boniface Associates for responding to this question.